The Queen v Dent [2022] SASC 65 (30 June 2022)

This was a murder trial in the Supreme Court of South Australia before her Honour Justice David sitting alone without a jury. South Australia was the first State to introduce the option for an accused person to elect for trial by a judge along in preference to a trial by jury, which was the course the accused, Wendie-Sue Dent, decided to take.

On occasion it is said that the case against an accused is “only” circumstantial. This case illustrates however that a “circumstantial” case may be a very strong one.

The facts

Ms Dent (“the accused”)  was charged with murdering her partner Mr Lawrence (“the deceased”).  At the time of his death the deceased was living with the accused in a home he owned and which was unencumbered by a mortgage. The two had been in a relationship for about two years. In the early morning of 3 December 2015 the accused telephoned emergency services to report that she had discovered the body of the deceased in the bed they shared. A post-mortem examination revealed that the cause of his death was due to opiate poisoning, a combination of morphine, codeine and tramadol. The accused had been prescribed all of those drugs, ostensibly for a chronic pain condition and they had been dispensed to her in large quantities in the period leading up to the death of the deceased. A tumbler found on the bedside table was found to contain a liquid with traces of the drugs codeine, diazepam, paracetamol and naproxen.

It was the prosecution case that the accused had administered the drugs to the deceased on the day of his death or in the days leading up to his death, either in one dose or in multiple doses. Empty drug packages were found by the police at the home and in a bin at the front. They were examined for traces of DNA. The DNA of the deceased was not detected on any of the packages. The prosecution contended that it was not a reasonable possibility that the deceased deliberately, or accidentally, killed himself.

The prosecution led further evidence in support of its case that:

  • The accused had a financial motive to murder the deceased.  She was the sole beneficiary of his will and his superannuation fund, the total value in all being in excess of $400.000. The will was ‘hand made’ by the accused’s sister and signed by the deceased 9 weeks before his death.
  • The accused however was concerned that the deceased might change his will. In fact the deceased had, on an electronic version of the will, made some minor amendments shortly before his death but had not signed a fresh will at that time.
  • The accused had expressed interest in the proceeds of the will almost immediately after the deceased’s death – that is on the same morning he died.
  • The accused owed the deceased a large amount of money, including the value of a half share in an expensive motor home which he expected her to repay.
  • The accused made efforts to isolate the deceased in the days leading up to his death preventing his friends and family from telephoning or visiting him, supposedly because his back pain had confined him to bed. The medical evidence was that there would have been no need for the deceased to have been isolated or otherwise confined to his bed.
  • Over a period of 4 days prior to his death the deceased did not answer calls to his mobile phone or respond to text messages. This was unusual as he was known to be responsive to his friends and family. The text messages included one from a school friend as to the death of that friend’s father to which the deceased did not respond. He also failed to attend a birthday dinner without explanation.
  • About an hour before she made the call to emergency services to report the deceased’s death, the accused, at 5.15 am, telephoned the number of a bank. At that time the deceased was likely to have been dead for a number of hours. The accused did not telephone emergency services to call for an ambulance until 6.07 am. At that time she said “I’ve just woken up and found my partner dead in bed beside me…He’s obviously been dead for quite some time, he’s cold.”
  • The accused told a number of lies following the deceased’s death and the circumstances in which she found him. As to the cause of his death she told others that he had died of natural causes, among them a tumour, asbestosis and diverticulitis.
  • The accused forged a number of documents which purported to have been written by the deceased but which were found to be forgeries by handwriting experts. Among the forgeries was a note supposedly written by the deceased where he indicated that he may be suffering from a terminal illness and may expect to die soon.
  • The accused had admitted to providing drugs prescribed for her to others, including the deceased to whom she had administered Valium.

It was the prosecution case, therefore, that when all of the evidence was considered as a whole, there was no medical reason for the accused to isolate the deceased. On the prosecution case he was isolated by the accused to allow her to murder him by a fatal dose or doses of the drugs that killed him; the motive for the murder being financial gain.

When the accused was interviewed by police in New South Wales in February 2017 she denied the offence. At the trial she chose to exercise her right to remain silent and did not enter the witness box to give evidence.

The judgement

Justice David, in her judgment, found that she was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused administered drugs to the deceased which caused his death with an intention to kill him. Justice David found that the accused had a financial motive to commit murder because she would benefit significantly from the death of the deceased and she was concerned, in the days prior to his death, that the deceased might change his will.

Justice David concluded, finally, that there was no reasonable explanation for the deceased’s death consistent with the innocence of the accused. Her Honour was here setting out the test for a criminal case which relies solely or mostly on circumstantial evidence. The prosecution must satisfy a court that there is no reasonably possible explanation for the circumstantial evidence presented other than the guilt of the accused.

Read the judgement in full